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Five Classic ECM Titles in High Res

John Kelman By

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If ever there were a label that deserved to have its catalog released in a high resolution format, it's Munich's ECM Records. Since its inception in 1969, the multiple award-winning record label headed by producer Manfred Eicher has truly redefined how, initially, jazz and improvised music recordings could—and, at least for some, perhaps should—sound. Attention to the minutest detail and creating albums of such pristine clarity that every layer is clearly audible—from the loudest roar to the softest decay—has garnered the label a reputation like no other...a reputation that has grown exponentially over the decades as the label has morphed from being largely a jazz label to one that now includes a sizeable classical/form-based catalog, as well as a plethora of releases that defy such easy categorization.

In fact, along with its attention to sonic clarity, breadth and depth, ECM has always been a label intent on pushing the boundaries of what music can be, right from its inception. With Eicher at the helm the label has built a reputation, across a discography of well over a thousand recordings, for releasing music of such consistently high quality that it's one of but a few—and, truly, none of the others possess the longevity, discographical size and/or broad musical continuum—where fans buy new releases sight unseen/music unheard because of their intrinsic trust in the label. Even if the album is from an artist they've not heard before, chances are that once they've heard it most label fans will be glad they did...even if it's not necessarily something to which they'd have otherwise paid attention.

It's also a label unprecedented in the lion's share of its releases being produced by a single person: Eicher. The subject of "The ECM Sound" and what it really means has been debated for almost as long as the label has been around. The certainties? There are no stock reverb settings; and the label has used so many studios and engineers over the decades that it isn't a particular room sound or the person manning the board alongside Eicher. The best and closest way to articulate what the ECM Sound is? A reflection of Eicher's musical aesthetic, which can be reduced to some minimal concepts like "less is more" and the value of space...along with an approach to producing records where every note, from its first—perhaps sharp, perhaps muted—appearance to its final fade to black, with every moment in between, as clear as a bell, even when buried deep in the mix.

But even those descriptors are superficial, at best. What makes ECM recordings so recognizable is something far more complex; any attempts to reduce its qualities to simple terms invariably waylaid by the many easily identifiable exceptions. Those who have followed the label for decades (or even those who've come to it more recently) know some of the touchstones that help render an ECM album instantly recognizable (beyond the five seconds of silence that preface every album since the '90s); but what those touchstones actually are can be the subject of heated debate. An enigma, then, albeit one that is still, somehow, uniquely identifiable.

Across the span of nearly five decades, ECM has released music in a variety of formats, from its original vinyl (and oh, how beautiful and clean were those early German pressings!) through the cassette tape years and, finally, into the digital world with the advent of CD. While there have been a very few exceptions, what's been remarkable about ECM is how well it weathered the early CD years and less than stellar analog-to-digital (and vice versa) conversion that was in its relative infancy, often resulting in albums that were clean, yes, but also brittle and lacking in warmth and depth. Indeed, when looking back at earlier recordings collected in the label's Old and New Masters Edition reissue box sets, such as 2013's Paul Motian, Charles Lloyd Quartets and Jack DeJohnette Special Edition boxes, it turns out that ECM has rarely remastered the original digital masters, unless music that has never before been released on CD is being included.

ECM's pristine sonics and lucent transparency rendered it ideal for the move to CD, where the inevitable ticks and pops that began to emerge on well-played vinyl were no longer a problem—particularly appropriate for a label whose motto was, at one point early in its lifetime, "The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence." If ECM recordings have been almost unmatched in their crystalline pellucidity at CD's lower byte size and sampling rate (16-bit/44.1KHz), how would they sound in higher resolutions?


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